Just when it looked like Michael Schumacher had become invincible, with six wins on a trot, things change again in Formula One. As in each of the previous six races, he had claimed the pole position for the Grand Prix on Saturday, but in today's...
Just when it looked like Michael Schumacher had become invincible, with six wins on a trot, things change again in Formula One. As in each of the previous six races, he had claimed the pole position for the Grand Prix on Saturday, but in today's race he was outclassed not by one, but two of his rivals.
Rookie sensation Juan Pablo Montoya, fresh from several years of CART success and not one to show awe of past champions, was the first to draw blood. As drivers trying to avoid Mika Hakkinen's stalled McLaren at the start scrambled the front of grid, Montoya took advantage of the confusion and pointed his Williams-BMW through to claim second at the first corner, behind only Schumacher's Ferrari.
As the marshals were unable to move Hakkinen's stricken car quickly from the starting grid, they brought the safety car out briefly, with Schumacher, Montoya, David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher, driving the second Williams, forming the line behind.
As the safety car pulled away into the pits, though, Montoya drafted Schumacher along the pit straight, and then demonstrated the power of the BMW engine by pulling ahead of the German into the first corner, and braking later than seemed possible. A daring move by Montoya, and one that clearly demonstrated his willingness to fight all-out for position with anyone on the grid, including the three-time World Champion.
Montoya was able to gradually pull away, a fraction of a second on each lap, shrinking the red car in his mirrors as he threw his Williams around the Interlagos circuit. This was impressive driving in itself, and became all the more so, when Schumacher ducked into the pits -- the Ferrari was running on a lighter fuel load, but was still unable to keep up.
It looked like luck was on Schumacher's side, though, when disaster struck Montoya. The Colombian was lapping Jos Verstappen, and had cleanly passed Verstappen's Arrows, when things went just wrong enough. As Montoya braked for the corner, Verstappen was still directly behind him, the Arrows driver appeared to brake too late, slamming into his rear, taking off his rear wing, and ending the day prematurely for both drivers.
"I don’t know what happened, but I think Verstappen hit me because he braked too late, just a few meters later than me," said Montoya. "I went for the inside of the track and braked in the same place as always, on that corner."
To add to Schumacher's fortune, the skies opened and heavy rain began to fall on the circuit. With Montoya's demise and Schumacher's reputation as the F1 rainmaster, it looked like the race had just been giftwrapped and handed to him.
Not only that, but David Coulthard, running first after Montoya's demise, and some 30 seconds ahead of Schumacher when rain began to fall, missed the first opportunity to change tires, losing nearly half of that gap as he gingerly danced around the circuit, trying to stay on the track with his dry-weather grooved tires.
As Coulthard pulled out, Schumacher had an easy lead of nearly 20 seconds -- a seemingly impossible margin for the Scot to overcome, fighting in Schumacher's favorite conditions.
But then the unthinkable happened: Schumacher spun his Ferrari, letting several cars unlap themselves, and allowing Coulthard to close the gap. A spin from Schumacher?
"I was hoping for rain, because with David in front of me, I thought that would be my best chance," said Schumaher. "But today, it did not work out for us."
Indeed, it did not. On the next lap, as Schumacher pulled to the outside to lap Tarso Marques at the first turn, Coulthard took advantage, and replicated the passing manoeuver Hakkinen demonstrated at last year's Belgian Grand Prix. Moving to the inside of the Minardi, he braked late, and emerged ahead of the Ferrari at the corner, struggling to maintain control, but pulling it all together in time to claim the lead.
And that was not to be the end of it -- Schumacher did a further lawn-mowing exercise only a few laps later, losing more precious seconds, and spraying gravel all over the track. In the end, the German was unable to make any impression at all on the silver McLaren, ending up nearly 20 seconds adrift at the finish.
"When you start a race from fifth you don't expect to win, which makes today's result even more special," said Coulthard. "We used the right strategy and took a good decision with the set up: we were certain that it was going to rain and set the car up for this."
And the other Ferrari? Rubens Barrichello continued his own streak of sorts: for the second race in a row, he punted out his teammate's brother, Ralf Schumacher. Barrichello had made the race only by the skin of his teeth, after his Ferrari lost fuel pressure on the final warm-up lap. He ran to the pits, the Ferrari mechanics got him into Schumacher's spare car, and he made it out of the pits just seconds before they were closed.
But the effort was all for naught, as the Brazilian ran into the back of the Williams-BMW in front of his home-town fans, taking off the younger Schumacher's rear wing. This collision ended his own day, and took Schumacher out of contention, putting him some four laps down by the time the mechanics were able to replace the rear wing.
"My car was hit from behind by Barrichello," Schumacher recounted. "Obviously this has to be sorted out by the stewards, and I hope they will take action, as this has to stop, in my opinion."
Free of fighting for position after the rear wing repairs, he was able to clearly demonstrate the progress made by Williams and BMW to date. To prove the point, Schumacher set the fastest lap of the race, prior to the rains setting in, besting not only Coulthard and his brother, but also his own teammate, Montoya.
In the end, with Barrichello and Hakkinen out of the race, along with Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan-Honda, the final podium spot did not go to any of the usual suspects.
Instead, it was another young German: Nick Heidfeld, driving an outstanding race for Sauber-Petronas, claimed his first podium position, having passed the second Jordan of Jarno Trulli late in the race, after the Italian chose full-scale wet tires instead of the intermediates when the rains came down.
"When I was racing with Trulli, I would say he was on wets," said Heidfeld. "He was able to pass me when the track was at its wettest, but on my intermediates I was able to repass him as the conditions improved. I really cannot quite believe this result!"
The third place, combined with his fourth-place finish in Australia, now puts the youngster in a lofty fourth place in the Drivers' Championship, behind only Schumacher, Coulthard and Barrichello.
Behind Heidfeld, Olivier Panis capped an outstanding drive by passing Trulli for fourth place. Giancarlo Fisichella salvaged a point out of what had been a disastrous weekend for Benetton, with the Renault engine having shown itself to be well off the power standards of Ferrari, Mercedes and BMW. The Italian had started the race in 18th, with his teammate two places behind. After that, even one point is sweet.
In the end, the day belonged to Montoya and Coulthard, though. The Colombian made a strong impression and staked his claim to F1 superstardom -- and Coulthard clearly outshone Schumacher in the rain, casting doubt on his "rainmaster" title, at least for this race.